Six Steps for Automating in the Supply Chain Industry

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Winning Supply Chain Automation – Companies that are winning the supply chain game by embracing new technologies, such as mobile robots and IIoT monitoring, understand success hinges upon not only selecting best-in-class technology but also developing a well-thought-out supply chain automation strategy.
Six industry-leading considerations factor into creating a game-changing, robust, cost-competitive supply chain automation strategy.
Daniel Theobald, Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer for Vecna Robotics presented these six points in September at the Robo Business Conference and Expo.

6 Steps to Automate the Supply Chain:

1. Simulate, Simulate, Simulate
Take advantage of modern simulation and simulate all material flows and processes, not just production configurations. You must evaluate numerous different operational concepts and test before you begin deploying hardware. You must come to an understanding about which concept will achieve the best models for your organization.

Use simulation to answer specific questions and align them with your metrics and goals. A failed simulation costs very little money, whereas a failed automation project can set you back years and millions of dollars.

2. Constant Optimization
Visual representation of an evolved and optimized warehouse using Vecna Robotics’ RL3600-DO Pallet Truck
I strongly suggest to companies that can afford to do so, evolve rather than taking a “big bang” approach to robotics and automation. This method allows for making incremental changes to understand better how those changes impact a system and prevent overlooked points of failure.
I am not saying that the fast, ‘rip and replace’ implementation can’t deliver a rapid and solid ROI, but sometimes things such as institutional knowledge held at the worker level have been lost in rapid approaches, and recovery from a miscalculation happens at a slower pace.

3. Leverage Distributed Systems
Industries are moving away from large complex systems due to the need for flexibility. In our space, real customers require multiple robot form factors with different capabilities. That’s why we developed a robust fleet of mobile robots to handle a range of payloads and weights.  Businesses must consider systems that are appropriate for multiple situations and environments and that offer great flexibility and reconfigurability.
I also want to stress that highly dynamic environments require human/robot (automation) collaboration to create a highly efficient system.

4. Prepare Staff
There are many common misconceptions of robots and autonomous systems that cause people to mistrust the use of them.  Companies should develop a communication strategy to eliminate fear. If possible, companies should also try and make the technology accessible to employees.  We found that this further removes the mystery and the perceived threat and presents a much better outcome.

We introduced our technology to workers at a client facility, and a young man asked, “when do we get our pink slips?” We spent time explaining the use of the technology, which created a better understanding of the personal and company-wide benefits. Something interesting I’d like to note is that when he touched the robot, he continued to ask questions and began to feel a sense of ownership in the process. Afterwards, he said he wanted to learn more about the robot so that he could show others how to use it. He began seeing a career opportunity.

5. Leverage Remote Support
The most significant failing of mobile robots has been weak, post-deployment support and missed or unmet expectations. We have been operating in hospitals for years and chose to automate hospitals first because it’s the most difficult and complex environments to have an autonomous platform. For this reason, we’ve built a robust Remote Assist system for monitoring and addressing systems for robots.  In most cases, the issues we encounter with our robots in operation are due to human error.

Our approach to post-deployment support represents a paradigm shift from thinking of robots as a piece of equipment to more of a service. To ensure reliability and safety, companies want to look for this type of system when considering adding robots and automation to their operations.

6. Understand Your Metrics
The most important aspect of developing a winning strategy for the use of robots and automation is establishing goals. When the boss approaches you and says, “we need to automate to compete,” the correct response should be, ‘OK, but what are our goals?’

Even when answers like cost reduction, increasing throughput and gaining greater efficiency are obvious answers, the question needs to be raised to think holistically about the use of robots and automation. Quite frequently, robustness and scalability are overlooked in the decision-making process.
For example, businesses must consider how fragile their processes are to disturbances such as equipment failure, Wi-Fi disruption or power outages. Will you have a robust system that prevents a point of failure from bringing down the whole house of cards?

A big problem in logistics is dealing with surges. We have clients that claim 400% throughput at peak. When you have a flexible technology, like our mobile robots, there are strategies you can begin to adopt to deal with these cycles more cost-effectively and robustly.